Reading Whiting's article was refreshing, in that it was the first one I have come across with nice things to say about the government's decision -- if one ignores, of course, the obligatory puff pieces from The Yomiuri Shimbun, the mother ship that owns the Yomiuri Giants Japan baseball franchise. (Link)
The People's Honour Award is the government's most prestigious decoration for contributions to sport and culture. Since the first one was handed out in 1978 to O Sadaharu for besting Henry Aaron's career home run record, only 21 persons and one team -- the 2011 women's world cup winning squad -- have received the award. Seven of the decorated, including the Nadeshiko Japan squad, have been sports figures. The other contributors to Japanese culture receiving the nod have been musical composers (four), poets (three), singers Misora Hibari and Fujiyama Ichiro, film director Kurosawa Akira, manga artist Hasegawa Machiko (the creator of Sazae-san), actress Mori Mitsuko and explorer Uemura Aoki.
Uemura received his award following his disappearance on the way down from his solo ascent of Denali. Kurosawa's and Misora's decorations were also awarded posthumously, as was the most recent award, given last year to the all-time sumo tournament wins record holder Taiho.
There was some murmuring in 2011 about the appropriateness (and expense - the award is usually accompanied by a very expensive gift) of handing out the award to an entire World Cup team --despite the immense joy the Nadeshiko victory brought to the earthquake/tsunami/nuclear meltdown-weary country.
However, this year's award was the first to be greeted by a chorus of "Huh? Why now? What for?"
As the Whiting article makes clear, both Nagashima and Matsui have made huge contributions to baseball, with Nagashima excelling with the Yomiuri Giants as a player and then as a manager and Matsui having a stellar career in both the Japan and Major Leagues, playing in each league’s marquee team.
However, world cinema giant Kurosawa, Taiho and Misora Hibari – persons who defined the era in which they lived – did not receive their People's Honour Awards until after their deaths, indicating just how hard prime ministers have thought about the qualifications for People's Honour Award status. The awardee cannot just be excellent at what he or she does. He or she must change the way the Japanese see themselves and the world sees Japan. For Takahashi Naoko to receive the award in 2000 it was not enough that she had been the first Japanese to win an Olympic marathon. She had to be representing an incredibly frustrated, marathon-mad country, stuck in the middle of a 20 year Olympic medal drought, who so thoroughly blew away the Olympic record that her time was not bettered until the Olympics were held in pancake-flat London in 2012.
The announcements of the awards to Nagashima and Matsui -- and the breaking of the news story about the awards by the tiny circulation Jomo Shimbun, the hometown newspaper of Gunma Prefecture -- led many persons to initially conclude the story was an April Fools Day prank. Once the Abe government confirmed that it was indeed honoring Nagashima and Matsui, a storm of speculation broke out as the ulterior motive behind the government's decision:
Maybe Nagashima is at death's door – Having failed to give Taiho the honor he so richly deserved during his lifetime -- his junior Chiyonofuji having received his People's Honour Awared in 1989 -- Prime Minister Abe Shinzo and minister for sports Shimomura Hakubun wanted to make sure that Nagashima got his award while he was alive. Nagashima had a stroke in 2004; Mori Mitsuko, the only living senior citizen to be granted the award in the last two decades, also received hers after a crippling stroke.
Matsui's award was just an add-on to make the attempt to beat the Grim Reaper less naked.
The government is pandering to Sixties Nostalgia – "The Giants, Taiho and fried egg (Jaiyantsu, Taiho, tamago yaki)– the three things kids like!" was a catch phrase of the 1960s. It was the golden era of Japanese male sports and also time of the Japanese economic miracle (which, since it has been replicated by South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, Hong Kong, Malaysia and China, is looking a lot less miraculous). Pandering to nostalgia for the 1960s, when the people were poor but virtuous and hard-working (Link - J) is one of the prime minister's favorite gambits and represents an attempt to mine the mountain of votes of those who were either children or young adults during those years of fast growth and order (and horrible pollution, and Okinawa still in under U.S. Occupation, and...)
Since O Sadaharu of the V9 Era Giants (when the team won nine championships in a row...yikes) received a People's Honour Award, why not hand out an award to Nagashima, his fellow superstar teammate?
Thank you, The Yomiuri Shimbun - Japan has two major conservative media conglomerates, the Fuji Sankei Group and the Yomiuri Shimbun Group. The Fuji Sankei Group follows a conservatism of principle, demanding that the government adopt strong defense posture, national pride (some would call it xenophobia), a philosophy of limited government and hands-off economics. In many ways, the Sankei Groups political stance echoes principles guiding the editorial page of The Wall Street Journal).
The Yomiuri Group, however, is the bullhorn of The Establishment -- and in the political world, The Establishment is the Liberal Democratic Party. During the three and half years the LDP was out of power, no media group worked harder to undercut the government and cross the line in between journalism and news manufacture than the Yomiuri's print and broadcast news arms. For the Yomiuri Group's meritorious service to the LDP's cause, the Abe government is handing out the nation's highest honor to former Yomiuri Giants players.
While the Fuji Sankei Groups traffics in 1960's nostalgia and the Sankei Shimbun did print an editorial congratulating the two ball players (Link - J) -- the newspaper did not turn a blind eye to political public relations aspect of the move. On April 3 Sankei Shimbun printed a cartoon of Matsui and Nagashima sitting in the bleachers at the ballpark as an eager Abe Shinzo, dressed as a concessionaire, offers them medals from out of a box marked "People's Honour Awards." The caption on the cartoon reads: "Are we being used for political purposes? Why now? Ah, let's just forget about it and celebrate!"
(The centrist Asahi Shimbun printed a similarly sarcastic cartoon of Abe, Nagashima and Matsui on its editorial page on April 3 as well.)
It is not as though the Abe government and the ruling coalition need the public relations fillip of hoisting Nagashima and Matsui atop pedestals. Even after damaging the value of yen, promising to monetize the budget deficit and grasping the twin nettles of accession to Trans Pacific Partnership negotiations and a move of the functions of the Marine Corps Air Station Futenma to a replacement facility within Okinawa (or perhaps, because of these actions) the Abe Cabinet's support ratings are at above 70 percent (
An aside: Nagashima and Matsui will be the first basebal players in this baseball-crazy land to accept a People's Honour Award (Suzuki Ichiro has been offered the award twice and has twice turned it down) whose parents were both Japanese. O Sadaharu (Sadaharu Oh)'s father hailed from Taiwan, which was from 1895 to 1945 part of the Japanese empire ("O" is the Japanese pronunciation of the Chinese surname "Wang"). Kinugasa Sachio, who was the only other People's Honour Award honoree from baseball (he received his in 1990 for surpassing the consecutive game playing record of Lou Gehrig) never knew his biological father. From Kinugasa's features, skin tone and his tightly spiralling hair, however, it is clear that Kinugasa's father was an African American.
As Okumura Jun has previously noted (Link) for what is supposed to be a racist country (Link), less than perfect Japaneseness has mattered little in public recognition of sporting greatness. Taiho, the other human member of the 1960's trinity of "Giants – Taiho – fried egg" – had, like O and Kinugasa, only one Japanese parent. His father, Markyan Borishko, was a Cossack from Ukraine. Rikidozan, the professional wrestler whose flamboyant performances against designated loser American opponents were the guilty television pleasures of the early 1960s, was a citizen of North Korea (which is why today the most frequent Japan-North Korea cultural exchanges are tours of the DPRK by Japanese professional wrestlers).
As for Robert Whiting, he steered clear of politics and cultural criticism in his article on the Nagashima and Matsui awards. He will likely show no such restraint when he will be one of the featured speakers in a discussion of an incredibly hot button topic, "Does Japan have a violence problem in sports?" tonight at Temple Univerity Japan's Azabu Hall.
Sadly, I will not be able to attend what is likely to be a fascinating evening event.